Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 2Topic 7: Walt Whitmans City
Poetry of the City
"I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city, Whereupon, lo! upsprang the aboriginal name!..."

"Mannahatta," Walt Whitman's 1855 poetic tribute to New York, is one of the classics of American literature.

Reading City Poets

The poem is also part of a great American tradition: writers celebrating and sometimes criticizing their hometowns in poetry, like Carl Sandburg's Chicago and Langston Hughes's Harlem. Sometimes it's put to music, like Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York" or NWA's raps on Compton (Los Angeles).

To read some of this poetry, you can click on the following Web site:

The Academy of American Poets
This site includes a service called "Find a Poet." It provides an index of American poets who appear on the site, along with their poetry, bios, photos, and more. Sandburg's "Chicago" is here and so is Hughes's "Night Funeral in Harlem."

You can also read more of Whitman's poetry at:

Whitman's Poetry

Writing Your Own Hometown Poetry

You can write a poem about your hometown, too! There's nothing mysterious or difficult about writing poetry. Your poem can be long or short. It can tell a story or describe a scene. It can rhyme or not rhyme. You can even put it to music. As the great American poet Robert Frost described it: "a poem ... begins as a lump in the throat.... it finds the thought and the thought finds the words." All you need to write a poem is a pen and paper (or a computer).... and a little inspiration. Some poets and songwriters get their inspiration from real life. Walk, skate, or bicycle around your home town. Keep all your senses--sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste--wide open.

Another route to poetic inspiration is history and current events. Read a book or magazine article about your hometown--about famous and not-so-famous people from its past and from today.

Publishing Your Poetry

Once you've written your poem, why not let others read it? Ask your teacher or parents for help in finding creative ways to get your poetry published.